Investigating intestinal disorders is sometimes difficult because the environment in a person's gut is complicated; damaging it during analysis could interfere with how the body digests food. Researchers at Harvard University's Wyss Institute decided to find a better way to investigate intestinal disorders. They built a biologically inspired computer chip that simulates the environment of the human gut.
The device mimics the structure, physiology and mechanics of the human intestine. It has a central chamber that contains a layer of human intestinal cells grown on a flexible, porous membrane. The membrane, which is attached to the chamber's walls, stretches and contracts, mimicking the motions that move food through the digestive tract.
The design also allows fluids to flow above and below the layer of intestinal cell, just as it does in a living intestine.
Researchers have the ability to grow common intestinal microbes on the intestinal cells, providing a good look at what happens over the course of certain intestinal diseases. With an accurate test bed, researchers can look at how different drugs and nutrients are absorbed.
Dr. Donald Ingber, who led the research, said in a statement that it's a big step up from animal models, because an animal's digestive system doesn't always duplicate exactly what a human's will do.
This isn't the first time biomedical engineers have tried building artificial organs. Skin cells have been engineered on a scaffolding of spider silk, and in 2009 a German team created an artificial liver.
Credit: Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering / Harvard University